literature

   Thanks to the survival of thousands of clay tablets from many times and places in ancient Mesopotamia, it is clear that the civilizations of that region produced a large, varied, and rich collection of literature, some of it of high quality. Among the literary genres that developed were epic and other poetry, hymns and prayers, proverbs, social satires, laments, law codes, letters, astrological and divination texts, and historical accounts. Although examples of writing date back to the early third millennium b.c. or earlier in Mesopotamia, the earliest examples of literary texts date from about 2400 b.c. The Sumerians produced large amounts of literature. But few of the original versions have survived, and most of what exists today consists of later Babylonian and Assyrian copies. Particularly important are literary copies made by Kassite Babylonian scribes in the second half of the second millennium b.c.
   Epic Poems The case of epic poetry is a clear example of this process. The Sumer-ians created several early epics, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. Babylonian scribes later made copies of the original, which was subsequently lost. That original, like other written versions of epic poetry, was based on an oral tradition that likely stretched back to the period before the invention of writing. Just as Greek bards like Homer traveled around reciting stories about heroes, gods, and the Trojan War, early Mesopotamian poets told and retold tales about the heroes Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Atrahasis and their encounters with the gods and fate. Epic poems were typically long, detailed, and dealt with universal, weighty themes, such as the meaning of life and death, the quest for immortality, and the relationship between humans and the divine. Besides the poems about Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, important epics included those about the goddess Inanna's descent into the underworld, the romance between the deities Nergal and Ereshkigal, and the adventures of the heroes Adapa and Etana. The only Assyrian epic of which sections survive was the Tukulti-Ninurta Epic, which celebrates that Assyrian king's victory over the Babylonians in the thirteenth century B.c.
   Mesopotamian poets also wrote shorter works, notably erotic poems that may have been intended as entertainment for royal courtiers at feasts, celebrations, and other gatherings. In one example, a man goes into a tavern and propositions a barmaid. The lyrics of these pieces are often sexually graphic. Yet their frequent use of similes and metaphors comparing lovers and their sexual organs to natural objects such as trees, wheat, and flowers make them literarily rich, even charming.
   Hymns and Prayers Another important Mesopotamian literary genre consisted of hymns and prayers. This comes as no surprise since the people of the region were religiously devout, sometimes in the extreme. Most of the hymns were probably composed by priests and praised various gods. consequently, modern scholars have learned much about these gods and the locations of their principal shrines by studying ancient hymns. This is part of a hymn to inanna, goddess of love and sexual passion:
   The great-hearted mistress, the impetuous lady, proud among the gods and pre-eminent in all lands . . . the magnificent lady who gathers up the divine powers of heaven and earth and rivals great An, is mightiest among the great gods. she makes their verdicts final. ... Her great awesome-ness covers the great mountain and levels the roads. At her loud cries, the gods of the Land become scared. ... Wherever she [goes], cities become ruin mounds and haunted places, and shrines become waste land.
   Other Mesopotamian hymns are like love songs and were probably recited in ceremonies in which kings enacted ritual marriages between themselves and Inanna. As Samuel N. Kramer and other noted scholars have pointed out, a number of such works resemble some of the psalms in the Old Testament; and indeed, the prevailing theory is that the writers of the biblical psalms were influenced to some degree by Mesopotamian models. Just as the psalms of the Hebrew king David were meant to be sung or recited to harp music, Mesopotamian hymns were likely accompanied by some kind of music. One striking example reads in part:
   Bridegroom, let me caress you, my precious caress is sweeter than honey. In the bed-chamber, honey-filled, let me enjoy your goodly beauty. . . . Your spirit, I know here to cheer your spirit. Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn. Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart. Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.
   Proverbs and Laments Another popular category of literature in ancient Mesopotamia was the proverb, a short, wise saying passed from one generation to the next. Like poems, proverbs were at first preserved by word of mouth, but in the second millennium B.C. scribes began to collect them and write them down. Often they would give the same proverb in both Sumerian and Akkadian, which turned out to be helpful for modern scholars trying to translate Sumerian. The main reason that proverbs were so popular was that change occurred only very slowly in Mesopotamian society; so most people felt that the wisdom of past generations could still be applied to their own. The following are among the most enduring of the Mesopo-tamian proverbs: "The poor men are the silent men in Sumer"; "Friendship lasts a day, kingship forever"; "If you take the field of an enemy, the enemy will come and take your field"; "Conceiving is nice, but pregnancy is irksome"; and "For a man's pleasure there is marriage, while on thinking it over, there is divorce."
   Another literary genre that involved short but pointed statements about life was social satire, made up mainly of brief, humorous tales. Each involved everyday people and/or animals and commented in some way on common social injustices, especially the exploitation of the weak by the strong. In one story, for example, a simple, uneducated gardener shows that he is far wiser than a highly educated doctor. Many satires were animal fables like those of the Greek writer Aesop, with dogs (symbolic of average people) outwitting lions (representing royalty) and so forth. There were also fictional letters and contracts, including a contract for a worthless piece of land drawn up by a bird and witnessed by other birds.
   On a more serious note, almost all Me-sopotamians knew about the ravages of war and famine and the loss of loved ones in such times of crisis. The strong emotions aroused by such events were frequently expressed in laments, or lamentations. These were sad works in which the writer, speaking for the people of a city, described the ills that had befallen the city and expressed grief, sorrow, and asked the gods for forgiveness. The Mesopotamian laments directly inspired the ones in the biblical book of Lamentations, inspired by the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, including:
   The Lord has scorned his altar. ... He has delivered into the hands of the enemy the walls of her palaces. . . . Cry aloud to the Lord! O daughter of Zion [Israel]! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite! (Lamentations 2.7, 2.18)
   For excerpts from a lament attributed to the goddess Ningal, the Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur, see also Ningal; Third Dynasty of Ur. For an excerpt from the Assyrian Tukulti-Ninurta Epic, see also Tukulti-Ninurta I. And for details about other kinds of Mesopotamian literature, see also divination; historical accounts; laws and justice; letters.
   See also: Bible; languages; libraries; writing; and the names of individual epic poems

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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